Casual Vacancy 3: ‘From Potter to Potty-Mouth,’ the Numbers

As the repeated and realistic cursing of characters throughout Casual Vacancy was the subject of comment in every review I read before reading Casual Vacancy, I decided to track the profanity instance by instance, an exercise I realize that will inevitably cause readers to imagine me at the movies with a click counter for ‘F’ and ‘S’ utterances or, a la the Harry Haters, a Hogwarts reader who flinches at every use of magic. Be that as it may, here are the numbers for your consideration:

Variations on ‘Fuck’ (140). ‘Shit’ (34), ‘Bloody’ (23), ‘Bitch’ (16), ‘Shag’ (12), ‘Cunt’ (8), and ‘Bastard’ (7). There are various unpleasantries about penises, lesbians, and masturbation but no one of more than five appearances. Cursing is part of the atmospheric fabric of the book, I think it’s fair to say, and I think we’re left to discuss (a) what effect the author was after in this besides shock and (b) how it impacted your experience of the work. Have at it!

Just as a starting point of conversation on the data, there are two pages on which characters say or think ‘fuck’ again and again and again, once nine times, another eleven times. There are also stretches of thirty and forty pages in which no one swears at all. Language defines worlds and experience, no?


  1. Honestly, the language and depressing nature of CV tempted me to put it down many times, but this makes me realize about myself – I like the fantasy, the world where anything can and does happen, and where good triumphs evil. But, I am amazed that Jo is just as in-touch with reality; something so ugly and hurtful for my eyes that I wanted to quit it. Yet, this is the language used. This is the reality for many people. If they can live through it, shouldn’t I be able to survive reading about it?

    P.S. think she’ll get this one on the banned book list as well? I think of Huck Finn when I think of the language in this book.

  2. I would not have finished reading if the author had been anyone else. Between the language and the explicit sex (much of which I skipped) I was very turned off. There are creative ways to convey the reality of the situation and I was disappointed that JKR condescended to the commonplace.

  3. Louise Freeman says

    I was more bothered by the explicit sex than by the language itself. Junkies and the children they raise cannot be expected to exclaim “Merlin’s Beard!” when frustrated, after all; neither do teenage boys who are trying to be cool. I understand that some of it was necessary to convey the level of grittiness that Rowling needed to portray in this book, but part of me wishes it were toned down a bit.

    It will be interesting to see if this book makes it onto any high school reading lists. I don’t know that I would recommend it to anyone younger than high school senior. If you are old enough for Catcher in the Rye you are probably old enough for this.

  4. Amy Rothrock says

    I also found the swearing to be way over the top and agreed with the comment about wanting to put it down so many times . . . however–and this just occurred to me when I read the actual list of the swear words, by the numbers–it’s interesting, isn’t it–that she never uses the Lord’s name in vain or any of the swear words that are commonly associated with that . . .

  5. I did not note any uses of ‘Jesus Christ!’ as an expletive in my scoring but Gavin twice uses the ‘name in vain’ as he leaves Kay’s apartment in Part 1, chapter 3. He’s shocked at Barry Fairbrother’s death.

    A possible link, I think, between the Lord, Barry Fairbrother, and their “ghosts” in the book.

  6. Amy Rothrock says

    Oh–interesting . . . but no “damn” or “go to hell” or anything else that has to do, maybe, with God or where one spends the afterlife? Those are (in “real” life) such commonly used swear words, it seems quite deliberate to leave them out . . .

  7. Beverly Button says

    When I first started reading the book, all of the swearing and the sex scenes really were not what I expected; I thought Jo was more ‘refined’ than that. Many times I was tempted to put the book down and walk away! I didn’t like the swearing or the sex scenes, but I don’t believe that her book would have been as effective in getting her point across without them. She depicts the real world, whether we like it or not! I don’t think I would recommend this book to anyone younger than 21 without parental consent.

  8. I live in a town where many of the people I pass on my way to work are in methodone clinics or mental health clinics or anger management. When I read the book I thought she had it down realistically. It made me wonder if she had this “intelligence” from her previous life before Harry Potter or if she had walked around the same places since her success that I pass every day. I never thought about quitting the book. I read this novel at a slower pace than I have read any book in the past 20 years. I think she could have made the elements of this story much worse and I give her credit for including the parts that make us uncomfortable. The story had disturbing elements that we would all like to ignore, but you have to realize that this type of life exists. I give her credit for being able to write about it so that those of us who have the ability to help will think twice to help. At the end of the book, I felt satisfied that she had told a realistic story and that meant a lot to me. I hope that if a circumstance presents itself to me (i.e. seeing a small boy walking by himself) I won’t be afraid to become involved.

  9. In all honesty, the sex scenes didn’t seem particularly explicit to me. But maybe it’s just because I have read Nora Roberts and accidentally picked up Harlequins before I knew what they were known for. Sex scenes in those types of books seem to be written to excite, and I didn’t get that impression at all from CV. I read the book much slower than I usually would, too, partly to let it all sink in, I think. And I plan to re-read it in a few months.

    The swearing I found realistic as well; characters in those types of situations are likely to use that kind of vocabulary. I never thought the language was arbitrary or over the top- especially since her more ‘refined’ characters never swore. It seemed to make sense.

    As to an age recommendation, I would have more trouble recommending it to my 47-year-old mother than I would my 20-year-old sister. My sister reads many of the young adult novels that deal with drug use, sex, etc., while I don’t think my mother could handle it as well. So I think it’s a person-by-person thing. As to myself (24 now), I think I could have read it without getting offended by the time I was about 18.

  10. I was taken aback at the beginning of the book with all the swearing because I was used to Ron saying things that made Hermione gasp and chastise him or knowing that he’d said something that his mother would not approve. So we knew there was swearing in Harry Potter, but the words were left to our imagination. I thought that was very appropriate for a book that was being read by children.

    But this one was never intended for children so having the characters use the words fit, even though it’s not the way I choose to express myself (not that I don’t ever swear, but nothing on that level).

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time with teens and young adults who have been comfortable enough with me to say words I’d rather not hear. I remember when my oldest went to college I told her that I didn’t want to hear her using the “F” word even though I knew she said it – and she and her friends toned down their language for my benefit.

    Given the characters and their particular lives, it would have been really phony if they had said “oh darn” or “golly gee”.

    Rowling really nailed the portrayal of the drug culture, I think. I see them every Friday when I volunteer at the food bank. They are on their best behavior when they come in – cleaned up as much as they can, language mostly under control but not always. But they have missing decaying teeth and they don’t look healthy. Because they might not have used before coming in, they are often shakey and jittery or anxious and mistrusting.

    And there are the people who are poor who live in places like the Fields and see no way to escape poverty. The hopelessness that we see in Krystal’s family is all too painful in the reality of it.

    At the very beginning I did think that if it had not been Rowling I probably wouldn’t have continued to read the book. But I liked the style of writing and suspected that there would be more to the story than just the language and sex. And I was right in that – I’m glad I did finish it. It is the kind of book that makes me keep thinking about the characters, their lives, their choices or lack of choices.

    I find myself looking at my neighbors differently or the people I see in the store. How many of them are having the same kinds of difficult times in their lives. More than I know, I’m sure.

  11. Tinuvielas says

    I wasn’t particularly shocked by the language. Being a non-native speaker, I can’t say how I would feel if I read it in translation, but I suspect it wouldn’t bother me – it seemed appropriate somehow, part of the characters, not something aimed at the reader as some kind of provocation (“shag” or “to have used” for instance are expressions I confess to never having encountered before, so I sort of took them at face value; words and characters were each enlightening the other). Funny enough I did put down a book because of the language once, and that was Trainspotting – loved the film, but got so disgusted with the offending language in the book that I didn’t get over the first few chapters.

    As to the sex scenes, I’m with Rochelle: Neither particularly explicit (and the more effective because of it), nor written to excite (let alone give pleasure), either to the reader or to the characters. A picture of sex without love (reminds me of a song: “…want your body don’t need your soul”…), which is quite realistic imho both in its unflattering portrayal of hormone-driven adolescents and middle-aged couples in various states of disharmony (Rowling is about my age…) – and in that it totally negates the commonplace and omnipresent romantic ideal of love as a literary (and ideological) plot device. (But I guess this discussion should go further down the list…)

    Finally, interesting how many comments this topic drew compared to the “Muggle-March” one… why is that? Is it because the swearing (still) polarizes people? I mean, come on, we’re living in 2012 not the 50ies… Or is it because the swearing is closer to the surface of the text, and the “language” touches us directly? Is it perhaps that we feel uncomfortable with this use of language (and sex) in the same way we feel uncomfortable with sitting next to a drug-addict or a drunk or a couple of unpleasant adolescents in the subway? We don’t like it, we’re not like that, we really don’t want to look at it and we certainly want no part of it – yet there it is, tangible, smelly and offending, sharing our common room. And we ask ourselves, or at least I do, why don’t they snap out of it? Isn’t there anything they or anyone can do? (perhaps even a resigned: Anything I could do?) But most of all: what is their story…?

    And I think if this effect is what Rowling was after, she succeeded very well, because she made me like these essentially non-likeable characters (well, perhaps with the exception of Obbo… P) – she managed to make me care for them without turning them into heroes, simply by giving them a story.

  12. Why is there this idea that avoiding swearing, or not being tempted to swear, is a virtue? As people have been saying, the degree of seriousness with which people treat swearing is a class and generational divide, so isn’t there an unavoidable implication that people who don’t swear are ‘better’, when what they’re likely to have in common is being older and more middle class? Isn’t a fundamental point of the book that actually, behind every closed door and in everyone’s inner worlds, there is turmoil and destructiveness and irresponsibility, just of a different kind if you’re less materially deprived?

    I don’t think J.K. Rowling included anything, either sexually explicit scene or swear word, purely for the sake of it or to shock. Both were essential for the gritty realism of the book.

    The Daily Mail, one of our right wing newspapers in the UK who accused J.K. Rowling of having written a ‘socialist manifesto’, characterised Krystal Weedon as a ‘tart with a heart’ – but the whole point is that there is no gratification in the sex she has, no love – she can barely formulate the idea that she has been raped when it happens non-consensually. Her vagina is ‘miraculously unguarded’ because there is no one to protect or guide her, no one to give her standards by which to measure other people’s treatment of her. And all this because her mother was horrifically abused and abandoned herself, and everyone just expects Terri to magically ‘buck up her ideas’, instead of being willing to take some responsibility for an unequal and unjust society themselves.

    Surely Gavin and Shirley’s utter indifference to Robbie moments before his death is more shocking than any of the swearing? And Sukhvinder is a heroine not because she does not swear or have sex, but because she is as concerned about others as she is about herself?

  13. I haven’t seen anyone post my feelings on this, so I’ll do it.

    I did not like the swearing or sex. I would have put the book down after the first chapter if it was anyone other than JKR. I grew up in that kind of environment (though only about 60% of the extreme cases), and I never want to go back. I would have put it down 1/3 of the way in if it was anyone other than JKR. I was about to put it down about 1/2 way in even though it was JKR, but the war inside me was won by my curiosity, and I finished the book. I will never read it again.

    I look forward to reading the rest of these posts and comments, though, because anything that might bring JKR back to hero status for me is welcome.

    I know that words are just words, and that they, in themselves, do not contain any evil, but they are a sign of rebellion in almost everyone I’ve met that uses them. I don’t want to fill my head with the thoughts of rebellious people.

  14. Michael Doggett says

    JKR must have felt an invigorating sense of freedom being able to write from the perspective of a dozen different characters after having been confined to just Harry for so long. That is one of the things I found to be most impressive about the book. Not only do you get to know and care about each character through their words and actions and the words and actions of others, but the narration is so unique for each character being featured. JKR really truly understands people. It’s not just that she knows what makes them tick, but she has a complete understanding of how they came to be this way. An author who cares about her characters this deeply knows that pulling punches for the sake of censorship would be cheapening the characters and taking a lot of the realness out of them. This is an author who can help us understand each other as people. Isn’t that the only way to cure biggotry and hatred? Knowledge and understanding?

  15. I loved this book and thought her characters were very realistically portrayed. I lived abroad a long time and the kind of language she used didn’t seem that far fetched from what I heard in pubs by regular, normal folks. Scottish, English and Irish slang is very colorful. Also it’s interesting to note that people are so offended by the language instead of the very real poisonous attitudes in Pagford. Some say they would rather not “see” this language or sex and wish it just wasn’t there. But perhaps Jo is illustrating that we can’t just wish away what we find unpleasant like some of the residents would like to do. Especially if underneath that damaged facade beats the heart of a soul worth saving. And isn’t everyone worth saving?

  16. Michael Doggett says

    I like your comments, Nana, especially what you said about “the heart of a soul worth saving.” I was just rereading the book last night and I came to the first meeting we see between Krystal and Tessa Wall. Krystal is clearly (and obviously understandably) distraught… not just about being wrongfully accused, but because of the sudden death of the only adult who understood her. Here she is screaming at Tessa wall and launching f-bomb after f-bomb and the only thing Tessa can think to say is, “Krystal, please stop cursing at me.” Granted, she was up all night…she herself was upset…but come on. This is the only one of these counseling sessions we get to have a glimpse of and do you really think any of the other ones would have been much different? Krystal clearly did not identify with Tessa. They didn’t even speak the same language. But all it would have taken would have been for Tessa to listen. To empathize for a moment and stop being so damned selfish. Who cares if she says “fuck” a lot? IT’S JUST A WORD! If she could overlooked those 4 letters, the entire thing could have been avoided. Tessa could have saved Krystal and her brother. 

    This got me to thinking about the “Good Sumeritan” post concerning the ending of the book. Well maybe the parable doesn’t just apply to the end of the book, but to each one of the characters at various points in time? Just as Tessa could have done her part to prevent the tragedy, so could have anyone in the story, really. Each character had the ability to do something to change the outcome of the story, but they chose not to. Didn’t Professor Dumbledore say something about abilities and choices also? Hmmm…

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